If you saw Bill Donabedian’s weary face in the waning hours of the last day of the first Bunbury Music Festival in 2012, you might have correctly discerned that the promotional genius who conceived the event was a) bone-tired from the months of preparation and the constant on-site troubleshooting involved in the three-day Indie/Alt concert series presented along the Sawyer Point/Serpentine Wall stretch of Cincinnati’s riverfront, and b) going to do it all over again the following year.
Last year’s Bunbury was even more successful, with better attendance and smoother organizational flow (if such a thing was even possible). And when Donabedian closed last year’s festival, there was no doubt that he was already thinking about 2014. But no one could have predicted that those thoughts would include a second festival, a three-day Country/Americana extravaganza christened Buckle Up Music Festival, scheduled for July 18-20, the weekend after Bunbury (which takes place this weekend, July 11-13).
How did Donabedian, who co-founded the original version of the MidPoint Music Festival (CityBeat has owned and operated MidPoint since 2008) and programmed music for Fountain Square, envision a second, major three-day music festival five days after the conclusion of his other major three-day music festival? Were copious amounts of alcohol or peyote involved? Did the ghost of Johnny Cash appear to him in a sweat lodge vision and guide him toward assembling Buckle Up? Could there be a third festival?
Donabedian addressed these questions and more at his downtown office in advance of two of the biggest summer music festivals in the Midwest. He began by revealing the biggest booking secret of Bunbury and Buckle Up: “There are no favors. They want to be paid a lot of money, and we pay them a lot of money.”
CityBeat: Putting on a festival the magnitude of Bunbury is pretty kamikaze. Walk me through the moment when you thought to yourself, “I know — I’ll do this again in a week.”
Bill Donabedian: I can’t take credit for it. It was Debbie (Branscom), our operations manager. We hadn’t even done our first Bunbury, and during the set up Debbie, who’s a Country music fan, said, “You should just keep this all up and do a Country festival the next week.” And, of course, I wanted to kill her. Next week? Next year? We still haven’t done the first one and we’re behind and I’m freaking out.
Last year, she brought it up again; “There’s a huge Country audience here, you could do it.” And I was like, “She’s absolutely right. It makes so much sense because you can gain such economies of scale.” There was an event that week (the already-scheduled Cincinnati Triathlon) and they have legacy, but I was able to work with the gentleman who does the triathalon and he was willing to move his date. I hadn’t even finished the fundraising and I was like, “We’re doing this. I’ll figure it out, we’ll get the money somehow, we’ve got to go and we’ve got to go now.” It was something in my gut. And here we are.
CB: That’s obviously the major plus, that you can leave all the stages and the rigging up.
BD: It’s a huge cost savings on many levels. That’s why Coachella does two (fests) back to back. They were selling out so they said, “We’ll just do another weekend.” And, of course, they do (the Country-focused fest) Stagecoach. I think the Park Board would kill me if I tried to get another week of music in, but the Fourth of July weekend, the weekend before Bunbury, is usually open, so who knows?
CB: So this is sort of malleable? Things could shift?
BD: It could. And I actually have a couple of other ideas. Do I do them in Cincinnati or in other markets? I’m not quite sure yet. I think we’ll do events in other markets because we don’t want to saturate this market. I’ve got some cool ideas, but it’s like a lot of things; is the market receptive enough? Cincinnati is a tough market. They kind of hate you at first and then you push through and they love you forever and you can do no wrong. You’ve got to prove yourself, and once they get behind you, they’ll love it.
CB: Well, you’ve got your MidPoint experience, and Fountain Square, and the first two years of Bunbury have been stellar successes.
BD: I think so. I do think some of the MidPoint people were like, “Prove it, again.” I mean, success at MidPoint, and all that programming (on Fountain Square), especially the summer music series, I’m just trying to build that resume so I can do more. I’d like to see Cincinnati on the same level as Austin and Nashville and Memphis when it comes to music.
I want people to come to this market year-round.
We have the music history. I’ve argued it from the beginning. We are the birthplace of Rock & Roll. Memphis says they’re the birthplace, I say Rock & Roll was conceived here. They can have the birthplace. The conception part is much more fun.
We have the venues; we have the talented bands. And when you look at music festivals, you look at MusicNOW, the PNC Summer Music Series, Bunbury, Buckle Up, (Cincy) Blues Fest … that’s a pretty big resume of festivals. I’ve got some other ideas, and I think at some point, the country is going to have to go, “What the hell is going on in Cincinnati?” We’re this close to being the place where people go for the weekend because there’s so much great music.
CB: How much extra work has it been to bundle the two festivals this way?
BD: The hardest thing is the booking (effort) doubles and the marketing effort kind of doubles, but a lot of it is really not that much harder. I almost don’t feel like we’re doing two. I think it’s going to hit me more as we approach, and then on Sunday I’m like, “Woo, thank God it’s over.” No, it’s not. No, it’s not. You’ve got to clean up this mess and you’re not walking away. You’re going to make some changes, get one good night of sleep and get ready to do it all again on Friday.
CB: What are some of the changes that you’ve implemented for Bunbury this year?
BD: The biggest differences are: 1) Moving the Main Stage; the (Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber) was gracious enough to let us “commandeer” Party in the Park so we can set up the Main Stage on the west side of Yeatman’s Cove. With a few other adjustments, we can get more people closer to the stage, improve viewing lanes and eliminate the bottleneck that used to exist.
2) Bigger production; Empire of the Sun has a big show and we’re having to amp up for this one. The Flaming Lips also have a big show. Bunbury 2014 is about hearing and seeing.
3) Expanding the Craft Beer Village; more selection curated by our friends at Dutch’s.
4) Distillers Village and Molly’s Bar; if you have beer tasting, you might as well have spirit tasting. (Local bar entrepreneur) Molly Wellman has a bar in the village serving up awesome cocktails. There’s even an acoustic stage in that area to provide more music.
CB: Programming Bunbury has been relatively easy because that music is in your wheelhouse. How has it been scheduling Country acts?
BD: Nederlander is the talent buyer, and there’s kind of a formula we follow. We like to find artists releasing CDs, kind of up-and-coming, that radio stations can get behind. Who’s going to be in the area, what can we afford? And you start to get a great idea. They did all that legwork and research, and I trust them to do their job. Occasionally, you lick your finger and hold it up and see which way the wind blows and you say, “I think this is going to be a big band.”
I think similar to Bunbury, there are so many new things at Buckle Up. The hardcore Country fans who like mega-ticket stuff like Jason Aldean, that’s not really us. What I would say to those people is, if you want to get back to the heart of it all, we’re it. I know it’s being called a Country music festival, but there’s Bluegrass, Folk, Rock. This is music from the heart.
Country has a lot of forms. It has become a lot of things and a lot of things have fed it. To go to (Buckle Up), you’re going to see this great, raw music at the heart of it all and you’re going to find your next favorite band here. Some of this stuff is fantastic, and you get to see them up close and personal. And if they do break big, you’re going to wish you were at that show.
CB: Bunbury could have been a hard sell for Indie Rock crowds; Buckle Up could be an even harder sell for Country audiences. What are you doing to get them engaged?
BD: The response for this first year of Buckle Up is better than the response for the first year of Bunbury. With all the other things going on in the marketplace, to get people to spend all their money in one place is a bit of a challenge, and people are always wary of doing things the first time. If too many people wait and see, nothing ever happens. But response has been great and we’re confident we’re going to hit our numbers.
I think Country fans are excited about this format. If you were going to see Willie Nelson, you’re going to pay $55-$60, and you could have a whole day at Buckle Up and see 25 other bands, and, by the way, one of those bands is Alison Krauss.
There aren’t that many Country music festivals, not like this. I feel like we have to educate some of the fans. We get emails that say, “I don’t see my seat number.” This is a festival, there are multiple stages and multiple artists — see who you want when you want, move around, come and go, push your way up, hang back, whatever you want.
CB: Who are you looking forward to at each festival?
BD: I’ve never seen Emmylou Harris, and I’ve never seen Willie Nelson, so I’m looking forward to them. Drive-By Truckers. And there’s this great band that’s going to be on the acoustic stage, two guys called Tall Heights.
As far as Bunbury, I usually try and catch the headliners. It’s late in the day and I’m usually not as busy. (This year) I would like to try and see Cage the Elephant, New Politics, Young the Giant and Fitz and the Tantrums.
CB: There seems to be some overlap between festivals. Are you seeing any Buckle Up/Bunbury tandem sales?
BD: Yes. I knew there would be a little crossover. When the Buckle Up lineup came out, we heard people say, “I wish that band was playing Bunbury,” and vice versa. A festival like Bunbury is Alternative, and that means Alternative Pop, Rock and Country. Like 21 Pilots; they consider themselves an Alternative band, but there are elements of Hip Hop. And then in one song, he’s playing a ukulele. It makes total sense.
We’re seeing a lot of people buying tickets to both. Some have bought three-day tickets to both, some are going to Bunbury on Friday and Buckle Up on (the following) Saturday and Sunday, because of a day that they’re drawn to. I think that’s great.
CB: You mentioned the different marketing strategies for each festival. What have you done for each?
BD: There is some crossover between fests, but we are marketing them differently. Some things hold true for both. For example, we find that social media and out-of-home marketing, like billboards, work well. That being said, we have more success on Twitter when it comes to Bunbury, and (on) Facebook when it comes to Buckle Up. We also find that we have to create very targeted ads with Bunbury, but Buckle Up has a more holistic message.
Buckle Up has benefitted from Bunbury’s success. I heard a lot of people didn’t come to the first Bunbury because they didn’t think it was going to happen. When it came out that we were doing (Buckle Up), we have a proven track record and people will feel a little more comfortable about it.
And it’s not just people from Cincinnati; for Buckle Up, we have 30 states represented already (in pre-sale tickets) and six countries. I’m talking Europe, Central America, Canada, the U.K. that have people coming to this festival. Bunbury has over 40 states represented, as far away as Hawaii. Last year we saw a lot more people from outside of the Greater Cincinnati area, and moreso this year.
CB: Any last words?
BD: Have you seen our billboard that says, “Mark Twain Was Wrong.”? We put that up for a reason. There are still a lot of people stuck in music and bands that they’ve heard over and over, and we haven’t booked some of those bands; there’s tons of reasons why. And sometimes (people will say), “I don’t know any of these bands,” and I want to say, “Are you proud of that?”
These bands are all on the website, we’ve listed them all and you get to listen to them and use your own brain and trust your own gut. It hasn’t been spoon-fed to you, but you might like it. And a lot of this music, you’ve heard it in soundtracks and on commercials and TV. Come on, it’s an experience, come on out and sample it. We’ve done a really good job of curating it; if you come out, I guarantee you’ll find some really good stuff. Get out of your comfort bubble. OK, so you’re not a Fall Out Boy fan; come see them live. Just try it. It’s Green Eggs and Ham time, people.